Police in South Korea on Wednesday charged 17 U.S. soldiers and five other people with distributing or using synthetic marijuana brought into the country through the U.S. military’s postal service.
Police said they had not arrested any of the soldiers but had asked prosecutors to file charges against all 22 people. A Filipino and a South Korean national were arrested, police in the city of Pyeongtaek said. Synthetic marijuana is an illegal substance in South Korea.
Cha Min-seok, a senior detective, said the drug investigation was one of the largest in recent years involving U.S. soldiers. Most of the drug’s distribution took place at U.S. bases, through soldiers communicating via Snapchat, Detective Cha said. Two of the civilians were the wife of one soldier and the fiancée of another soldier, he said.
In South Korea, after police complete a criminal investigation, prosecutors review the investigation, sometimes conducting their own investigation, before deciding whether to file charges.
United States Forces Korea, which oversees the approximately 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in the country, had no immediate comment. Police said the four-month investigation began with a tip from the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Division.
Illegal drug use is far less common in South Korea than in the United States, but the government says it is on the rise, especially among young people, and vows to take stronger action against it. Even before this incident, South Korean authorities had long viewed U.S. military bases across the country as potential sources of drug trafficking.
Police in Pyeongtaek, where the U.S. military base Camp Humphreys is located, said a 24-year-old U.S. soldier there received about 350 grams of synthetic marijuana through the military postal service. The substance was smuggled in disguised as e-cigarette liquid and mixed with vaping liquid, police said.
Synthetic marijuana is a term for a variety of substances that mimic THC, the main psychoactive ingredient of marijuana. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, some substances are banned in the US. Synthetic marijuana is often sold in the United States under the names Spice and K2.
Police, as is customary in South Korea, have not released the names of any of the 22 suspects. They said seven of them, including five soldiers, were involved in the sale of the drug, 12 were users and three acted as middlemen.
Police said they seized about 2.7 ounces of the drug and $12,850 in suspected proceeds from the sale during their investigation, which included executing multiple search warrants at U.S. bases in Pyeongtaek and the city of Dongducheon.
Under South Korean law, those convicted of exporting or importing marijuana or possessing it for such purposes can face a prison sentence of five years to life. Those who sell or buy marijuana face a minimum of one year in prison. Those who use it could be sentenced to up to five years in prison or fined up to $37,600.
The police announcement again embarrassed the United States Armed Forces Korea, two months after Pvt. Travis T. King, an American soldier who had served prison time in South Korea for assault, crossed the border into North Korea.